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Traffic death yields misdemeanor charge against L.A. councilman's aide

August 17, 2012 |  1:46 pm

Councilman Richard Alarcon

Prosecutors with Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's office Friday filed a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge against a deputy to Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon who struck and killed a pedestrian while driving a city car earlier this year.

Manuel Figueras, 50, was driving a 2003 Toyota Prius in North Hollywood on March 14 when he hit 55-year-old Gary Woodford, a homeless man who had stepped out into the street at the intersection of Vineland Avenue and Erwin Street, officials said.

The charges come at a time when Alarcon, who is running for a seat in the state Assembly in November, is contending with his own criminal proceeding. He and his wife face felony charges of perjury and voter fraud in a case that has been the subject of a preliminary hearing over the past week.

If convicted, Figueras faces up to a year in county jail. Arraignment is set for Sept. 17, and bail is set at $25,000.

In many cases, prosecutors file misdemeanor charges when they have evidence that a motorist was distracted or not paying attention to the road at the time of the accident.

Officials in Cooley's office initially declined to file a felony vehicular manslaughter charge in the Figueras case in June, saying they lacked the evidence that he was driving at a high rate of speed or under the influence of intoxicants at the time of the crash. They referred the matter to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, leaving open the possibility that misdemeanor charges would be filed.

Weeks later, Trutanich sent the case back to Cooley. City lawyers said they did not want to pursue a criminal case while at the same time defending the city in a possible civil lawsuit from Woodford's family.
"Legally we could probably keep them separate. We could prosecute a city employee," said William Carter, a top deputy for Trutanich. "However, there might be a perception that what we are doing on the criminal case might give us an advantage on the civil case, and we just don't think that's an appropriate position for us to be in."

Woodford died of multiple blunt force traumatic injuries, according to officials in the Los Angeles County coroner's office. He was found to be highly intoxicated at the time of the accident, with a .32 blood alcohol level in his system, or four times the limit allowed when driving in California.
The fatal accident took place at around 7:35 p.m. Figueras stayed on the scene after the incident, and investigators found no evidence that he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Yochelson in an evaluation of the case two months ago.

Yochelson declined to file felony charges, saying there was insufficient evidence to show that Figueras had demonstrated gross negligence at the time of the accident. "The investigation showed that excessive speed was not a factor in the collision," Yochelson wrote. "The victim crossed the intersection after dark using an unmarked cross walk. According to [Figueras], he saw the victim and a companion entering the intersection but had insufficient time to stop."
Prosecutors wrote that there were conflicting witness statements about whether Figueras was attempting to change lanes and avoid hitting another car at the time he struck Woodford with his car. In addition, some of the witnesses were intoxicated at the time of the accident, according to the document filed by Cooley's office.


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-- David Zahniser at Los Angeles City Hall

Photo: A vehicular manslaughter charge was filed against an aide to Councilman Richard Alarcon, shown in 2010. Credit: Irfan Khan Los Angeles Times